Bates Motel (TV Series)
Created by Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin
Airing on A&E
When it was first announced that my favorite horror series was getting the "reboot" treatment, my heart sank. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is my single favorite horror film, much as its sequels comprise what I consider to be the best horror franchise ever (I understand if you’ll disagree with me, even if you’re wrong). The announcement noted that A&E’s upcoming reimagining would focus on Norman Bates’ early days, when his downward spiral first began and "Mother" was still alive and kicking. A retread of Psycho IV: The Beginning, one might think.
My dread of the impending show lightened when the big picture came into focus a bit: The new program would not be a prequel to Hitchcock’s film necessarily. It would begin in the present day – featuring new, contemporary versions of characters from that classic movie. And then, when the principals began dropping into place (Carlton Cuse! Kerry Ehrin!! Vera Farmiga!!!), something close to genuine excitement began to overtake me. "What if," I thought, "what if this show might actually be... good?" Still, I’ve had high hopes for such projects before, only to have them dashed to pieces upon viewing the work in question.
Now, with the pilot episode premiering later this evening (Monday, March 18th), and with this writer having viewed the first three episodes of "Bates Motel", I can wholeheartedly attest that my initial fears were entirely unfounded.
This show is superb.
Beginning with a bizarre, almost dreamlike sequence detailing the untimely death of the Bates family patriarch, "Bates Motel" shifts forward six months and finds mother/son duo Norma and Norman Bates (Farmiga and Highmore, both fantastic) relocating to the picturesque Oregon town of White Pine Bay (not Fairvale, California, as with the previous films). Norma has just purchased a large property on foreclosure, which holds both the iconic Hopperesque home and the business that we’ll eventually come to know as the Bates Motel. Norma and Norman do their best to settle in and live a peaceful enough life, and Norman even manages to make some friends at his new school. These include a clique of surprisingly un-bitchy popular girls led by queen bee Bradley (Peltz), who takes an affectionate interest in would-be outcast Norman. New friends also include Emma (Cooke), a young girl suffering from cystic fibrosis who finds Norman more than a little curious, and all-too-helpful language arts teacher Miss Watson (Tracy), who offers compassion and friendship to Norman at their first meeting.
Still, considering the show’s origins, murder has to rear its ugly head at some point. And yeesh, does it ever. The pilot’s big surprise will go unspoiled here, but suffice it to say that the show is not sparing the violence or brutality one expects from a tale concerning Norman Bates. The events leading up to the murder are shocking enough, as is the inevitable bloodshed. What follows is a massive complication to the Bates’ new life, one which will hang over them for what I imagine will be the show’s duration.
Further complications come in the form of Dylan Bates (Thieriot), Norma’s son and Norman’s half-brother, who arrives unannounced on their doorstep after losing his job and tracking them down to their new location, and with a sketchbook diary that Norman uncovers in one of the motel’s rooms. The tiny book features a number of cryptic images which detail bondage, torture, and murder – all taking place within the motel and throughout White Pine Bay. This mystery eventually envelops both Norman and Emma, who take it upon themselves to uncover the diary’s meanings and solve its mysteries, all while discovering that the idyllic town they live in has a very dark underbelly (which acts as a perfect complement for Norman’s own duality).
There are more than enough plot strands featured in the opening three episodes to keep the show’s web spinning for some time. It’s a smart decision, to ladle in additional mysteries to drive the show’s plot, considering that most audience members will already be aware of how Norman’s story will play out. But even though the relationship between Norma and Norman is the key to the show, the inevitability of their fate doesn’t undermine their journey. We still care about both characters and their (admittedly strange) bond. In fact, our foreknowledge even manages to add a melancholic feel to every scene the characters share with each other.
None of this would work if it weren’t for the talent in front of and behind the camera. The writing is mostly strong, giving new life to well-worn characters while deftly juggling the various subplots offered by the show. In addition, this reviewer appreciated how the writing seems to play with audience expectations. One might see a character here and peg them based upon what archetype they seem to represent, only to discover that they’re entirely the opposite of what they appear. Likewise, a character might deliver an eye-roller of a line, only for the use of schmaltz to be justified a moment later. Otherwise, the dialogue is pretty strong throughout, with bursts of violence and high drama to accentuate the unrelenting tension in each scene.
The plotting is also pretty superb, doling out just enough mystery each episode to keep one hooked. However, some overly expository dialogue and giant leaps made by characters in service to the plot occasionally mar what is otherwise a perfectly sound set of teleplays.
Each episode is quite skillfully directed. The quality of the performances is kept high, the tension stays humming throughout, and each episode is beautifully designed and shot. The musical score is also quite good (no nods to Bernard Hermann just yet), though the piece that accompanies the pre-credit sequence of the third episode seems more suited to a sitcom than an intense drama.
But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the show so far is its acting. As Norma Bates, Vera Farmiga is a powerhouse, delivering one helluva performance as a loving mother who simply wants the best for her child (no matter how conniving she must be or violently she must fight to earn it). Norma is at times funny, charming, caring, manipulative, wicked, and downright frightening, and Farmiga plays all of the necessary notes wonderfully. I doubt I’ll see many better performances than this in 2013, on television or in film (and if there’s any justice, she’ll be giving Jessica Lange a run for her Emmy later on this year).
Freddie Highmore probably has the most thankless task in the program, breathing life into a character that was already played to perfection over a half-century ago. Fortunately, the young actor is brilliant as Norman Bates, ably essaying the character and making it his own, even as his performance has the occasional nod to Anthony Perkins’ iconic portrayal. Highmore makes the character instantly likable and sympathetic, even when his anger overcomes him and turns him into something quite dark and scary. One imagines that it’s a tightrope of a challenge to play Norman, but Highmore succeeds admirably.
The rest of the cast is quite solid as well. Thieriot is great as the antagonistic Dylan, Peltz is charming as Bradley (playing against expectations of what one would expect from that character), and Cooke is wonderful as the sweet, somewhat oddball Emma. Cuse’s "Lost" alum Nestor Carbonell puts in good work as the always suspicious Sheriff Romero, with Mike Vogel as Zach - his handsome, seemingly well-meaning deputy.
Though I’ve only seen the first handful of episodes, I fully plan to stick with this series for the long haul. It’s a brilliant reinvention of the Psycho mythos - full of horror, heart, and the blackest of humor. If A&E and the "Bates Motel" showrunners can continue to keep the quality this high, I’ve no doubt that the series will sit comfortably alongside other quality genre programming such as "American Horror Story" and "The Walking Dead". If you’re a fan of Psycho, horror shows, or just damned good television, be sure to check in to the "Bates Motel." It’ll be well worth your visit.
4 out of 5